PORTO VELHO, Brazil (Reuters) - At an experimental government farm in the western Amazon’s Rondonia state, researchers analyze grass seeds under microscopes, shake soil samples in test tubes, and measure the milk production of a new breed of cows.
While high-profile police raids targeting illegal ranchers and loggers in the Amazon grab more headlines, these scientists may produce a more important solution in the long fight to save the greatest rainforest.
Their aim is to reduce the pressure for forest destruction by raising the productivity of pastures through fertilization, better choice of grass, and planting trees.
Brazil’s ability to meet its ambitious 2020 target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 2005 levels depends largely on the ability of its agriculture sector, and particularly its huge cattle industry, to meet growing world demand without destroying more forest.
The cattle industry is the main culprit of deforestation, which accounts for around 75 percent of carbon emissions in Brazil, one of the top global emitters.
“Brazil’s emissions targets hinge significantly on its cattle industry,” said Paulo Barreto, senior researcher with Imazon, an environmental institute in the Amazon city Belem.
At stake is not only Brazil’s role in climate change but also the competitiveness of its agriculture in a global market increasingly demanding eco-friendly products. Its beef exports account for $5.3 billion each year. Major importers of Brazilian beef products include Russia, China, Iran and the United States, as well as Britain and Italy.
Environment group Greenpeace said in a June report that consumers around the world were unwittingly fueling destruction of the Amazon by buying hamburgers and shoes linked to illegal deforestation. That spurred a wave of pledges by big meat processors aimed at reducing deforestation by farmers who supply them.
“Our producers know if they try to expand their land, they won’t have a market anymore. They’ll have to use the area they have better,” Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes told Reuters.
Near the town of Ji-Parana in southern Rondonia, farmers on their own initiative have planted trees on pasture land, giving cattle and pasture shade from the scorching sun and introducing nitrogen into the ground through the trees’ roots.
The richer pasture and healthier cattle will allow the cooperative to raise 5.2 animals per hectare, nearly triple its previous rate.
Brazil’s 200 million head of cattle, more than a third of which is in the Amazon, occupy an area nearly three times the size of Texas, or on average 1 per hectare (2.47 acres).
“We have the land and technology today that allows us to expand cattle ranching without chopping down a single tree,” said Luiz Carlos Balbino, senior Embrapa researcher.
He says Brazil can double or triple beef production without deforesting by boosting the productivity of existing pastures, recovering degraded grass lands, and developing as much as 50 million hectares (123.5 million acres) of unforested savanna.
FROM FOREST DEFENDERS TO CRIMINALS
But many ranchers are set in their ways and continue to slash and burn. Most were invited by the military government in the 1970s to populate the region to help defend the Amazon against alleged foreign designs on its natural resources. Back then they were told to deforest; now they’re told to reforest, complains one of their leaders.
“We came as human shields and now they turn us into criminals. If a settler is caught chopping down trees to survive, he goes to prison without bail,” said Francisco Ferreira Cabral, head of the Rondonia Agriculture Federation.
For decades ranchers and farmers have slashed and burned, consuming one-fifth of the world’s largest rain forest.
Poor soil quality means ranchers and farmers often abandon the land after a few years to push deeper into the forest.
From above, Rondonia state looks more like the Irish countryside than the western Amazon. Green pasture land has replaced most of the jungle, and cows have taken the place of jaguars, giant anteaters and hundreds of other species once roaming the area. The number of cattle -- 11 million -- is nearly triple the human population.
“There is hardly any forest left in the state, only in parks and Indian reserves, and even that is threatened,” said Cesar Luiz da Silva Guimaraes, head of the local office of the government environmental agency Ibama.
In June, police had to abandon attempts to pull 30,000 cows out of Bom Futuro national forest in Rondonia. Ranchers had made death threats, burned police cars and succeeded in pressuring the federal government to back off.
Some ranchers believe in conservation but don’t have the know-how or financial resources to buy fertilizer, equipment or proper seeds to improve their business.
“It’s not enough to give them technology, we need to give them the resources to apply it,” said Ibama’s Guimaraes. “If they don’t have access to credit, it’s cheaper to slash and burn. It costs you a box of matches.”
Many farmers lack proper land titles, meaning they have no collateral to put up for a loan.
While technology is available to increase output on existing land, it requires investments, infrastructure and a change in producer mentality.
That could take decades to apply -- time that the Amazon does not have. Although the deforestation rate has fallen to a 20-year low, helped by stepped-up police raids on illegal loggers and lower global demand for soy and beef, the 7,000 sq km (2,700 square miles) lost in the year to July still represents a major source of emissions. Scientists say it could lead to higher temperatures and less rain, risking a desertification process.
The government has set a goal to regenerate 8-9 million hectares (19.8-22.2 million acres) of degraded land in 10 years an area larger than Scotland. But a 2 billion reais ($1.16 billion) line of credit it made available this year for that purpose -- the first ever -- has gone virtually untapped.
“We haven’t found the way to make this attractive yet,” Stephanes said, blaming red tape and high interest rates.
DOUBTS ON 10-YEAR TARGET
Coinciding with the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen this month, leading meat packers will launch a satellite tracking system that uses implanted microchips to identify cows, helping them to avoid buying cattle from illegally cleared land.
Most conservationists applaud the measure but say the deal requires independent monitoring and worry that it excludes slaughterhouses that account for as much 40 percent of the beef market.
Like attempts to control drug-trafficking, experts say, measures to reduce illegally-produced beef will only work when the underlying economics change. As long as it remains cheaper to chop down trees than boost output on existing pastures, ranchers will do so, they say.
“The cattle industry goes to wherever land is cheapest and that’s the Amazon,” said Egon Krakhecke, secretary for rural sustainable development in the Environment Ministry.
Brazil’s agriculture minister remains confident that the cattle industry will do its part to help Brazil meet its 2020 carbon emissions target, as more ranchers see that environmental awareness makes good business sense as well.
“The long-term productivity gains far outweigh the initial investment -- we need to spread that message,” said Stephanes.
“Brazil has shown before it can successfully apply technology -- 10 years is more than enough time for this,” he said.
Yet scientists on the ground are less optimistic.
“Technology helps but isn’t an aspirin you take to fix the problem. You need investments, logistics, a change in attitude -- we’re talking a generation to change things,” said Embrapa’s Balbino.
Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Claudia Parsons
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